12 Top Palaces and Forts in India

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    Indian Palaces and Forts Overview

    The Amber Fort of Jaipur at sunrise
    The Amber Fort of Jaipur at sunrise. Jami Tarris/Getty Images

    When people think of India, ultimately forts and palaces come to mind. After all, they're a significant part of India's rich history, and they've been featured in countless photos and documentaries.

    Hence, it's not surprising that these architectural marvels are high on people's "must see" lists when traveling through India. The majority of India's forts and palaces are located in Rajasthan, where they were built by the ruling Rajputs (before being captured by the Mughals), and the Pink City of Jaipur has a particularly large number of them. However, you'll find them scattered through other states as well, as remnants of the Mughal era.

    Many of India's palaces have now been converted into hotels by their once royal owners. This been necessary in order for them to generate an income, after their royal status and privileges were abolished by the Constitution of India in 1971. The Indian palaces in this article are all still accessible to the general...MORE public.

    If you're interested in palace hotels, you'll find them in this Essential Guide to Palace Hotels in India.

    Otherwise, read on to discover 12 of the most impressive forts and palaces in India.

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    Udaipur City Palace, Rajasthan

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    Romantic Udaipur is known as the city of palaces and lakes. At the heart of it, overlooking famous Lake Picola, is the City Palace Complex and it's still partially occupied by the Mewar royal family today. They've done an outstanding job of developing it into a tourist destination that intimately presents the history of the Maharanas of Mewar. The "jewel in the crown" is the City Palace Museum.

    The Museum comprises both the Mardana Mahal (King's Palace) and Zenana Mahal (Queen's Palace), which make up the City Palace. Constructed over four and a half centuries, starting in 1559, the Museum is the oldest and largest part of the City Palace Complex. The architecture is the main highlight, along with the priceless private galleries, artwork, and photographs.

    Read More: Udaipur City Palace Museum Photo Tour and Top Udaipur City Palace Complex Attractions

    Where to Stay

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    Meherangarh Fort, Jodhpur, Rajasthan

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    Meherangarh Fort, perched atop a hill rising 400 feet above the city of Jodhpur, is one of Jodhpur's top attractions. The Fort was occupied by the ruling dynasty of Rathores (a senior branch of the Rajputs). Construction on it started in 1459. However, most of the Fort, as it stands today, was built from 1638-78. It has seven entrances, with the main one being at the northeast gate, Jaipol.

    The Fort is impressive as a well preserved heritage structure. Yet, there's so much more to discover inside. One of the highlights is the museum, which houses an outstanding collection of fine and applied arts from the Mughal period of Indian history. It even has the only professional museum shop in India. The Fort's ramparts are lined with antique artillery and offer a panoramic view of the "Blue City". Want a romantic evening dinner? The Chokelao Mahal Terrace restaurant serves traditional Rajasthani cuisine, while the city sparkles below. The Fort is also an evocative setting...MORE for music festivals.

    Don't miss the annual Rajasthan International Folk Festival in October and World Sufi Spirit Festival in February.

    More information: Meherangarh Fort website

    Where to Stay

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    Amber Fort, Jaipur, Rajasthan

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    Amber Fort gets its name from the small heritage town of Amber (also known as Amer) that's situated around 20 minutes from the Pink City of Jaipur. The Fort's main construction was started in 1592 by Rajput ruler Maharaja Man Singh. It was added to over the years by successive rulers and continued to be occupied by them until Jaipur was built. Now, it's one of Jaipur's top tourist places.

    The Fort's architecture is a magnificent blend of Hindu and Mughal influences. Made out of red sandstone and white marble, it consists of a series of courtyards, palaces, halls, and gardens. Perhaps, the most beautiful part of it is the Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace) with its intricately carved, glittering walls and ceilings. You can learn about the Fort's history in the evening sound and light show. (Take this Sound and Light Show with Dinner Tour from Viator if you don't want to have to organize your own transport).

    Another of the Fort's big attractions is the opportunity...MORE to ride an elephant up to its entrance. These elephant rides are only offered in the mornings, until 11.30 a.m., though. Make sure you get there early as they're very popular!

    Read More: The Complete Guide to Jaipur's Amber Fort

    Where to Stay

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    Jaisalmer Fort, Rajasthan

    Jaisalmer Fort.
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    Evocative sandstone Jaisalmer Fort is particularly remarkable as it's the only living fort in India. As well as 4,000 odd residents, the Fort has around 200 shops, 40 hotels and restaurants, a palace complex, intricately carved havelis (mansions) of rich merchants, and several temples inside it.

    The Fort was built in 1156 by Bhati Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal, after whom the city was named. It was the scene of many battles. However, alarmingly, its condition is now rapidly deteriorating. Illegal construction has been prevalent inside the Fort. Sewerage lines have become blocked and waste water has been seeping into the Fort's foundations, making it unstable. The government has announced that it intends to ban all hotels and restaurants from the Fort.

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    Jaipur City Palace, Rajasthan

    Jaipur City Palace
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    Located at the center of the Old City of Jaipur, the City Palace Complex was built mainly between 1729 and 1732 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. The ruler of nearby Amber (where he occupied Amber Fort), he decided to shift his capital to Jaipur in 1727, due to a growing population and increasing water shortage.

    Successive rulers continued to make additions to the Palace right up to the 20th century. These days, the royal family lives in the towering Chandra Mahal part of the palace (their family flag flies atop it when the Maharaja is in residence), while the remainder has been converted into the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II museum.

    The most eye catching part of it is Pitam Niwas Chowk, the interior courtyard that leads to the Chandra Mahal. It has four beautifully painted doors, or gates, representing the four seasons and dedicated to Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh, and Goddess Devi (the mother goddess). The peacock motifs on the doorway of Peacock Gate are particularly stunning.

    However,...MORE the real opulence is off limits, except for those willing to pay the extra money to take the Royal Grandeur tour (it's 2,500 rupees for foreigners and 2,000 rupees for Indians). This tour provides access to the inner quarters of the Chandra Mahal.

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    Maharaja's Palace, Mysore, Karnataka

    Mysore Palace, Karnataka, India
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    As far as Indian palaces are concerned, Maharaja's Palace (commonly referred to as Mysore Palace) is relatively new. It was designed by British architect Henry Irwin and constructed between 1897 to 1912. Owned by the Wodeyar dynasty, Wodeyar kings first built a palace in Mysore in the 14th century. However, it was demolished and reconstructed numerous times -- the previous palace, made out of wood in Hindu style, was destroyed by fire. The current palace has been built in Indo-Saracenic style, a combination of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput, and Gothic influences.

    The Palace's predominant feature is its marble domes. Inside, some would say its glitzy opulence is over the top. As well as private and public audience halls, there's a marriage hall, pavilion of antique dolls, armory, royal painting gallery, and collection of sculptures and artifacts. Unfortunately, photography isn't permitted inside though.

    What's really dazzling about the Palace is that it gets lit up by around...MORE 100,000 bulbs every Sunday evening at 7 p.m., as well as briefly after the nightly sound and light show. It also remains illuminated nightly during the whole 10 days of the Mysore Dasara Festival.

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    Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh

    Gwalior Fort
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    Ancient and imposing Gwalior Fort, one of the must see tourist places in Madhya Pradesh, has a very long and turbulent history.

    The Fort's initial construction dates back as far as 525 AD. Over the years, it was subjected to many attacks and had many different rulers. It wasn't until the reign of the Rajput Tomar dynasty that the Fort really rose to prominence, and was built to its current scale and grandeur. During this time, ruler Man Singh constructed one of the Fort's main highlights, Man Mandir Palace, between 1486 and 1516. Its outer walls are distinctively decorated with blue mosaic tiles and rows of yellow ducks.

    Later on, the Mughals used the Fort as a prison during their rule.

    There's a lot to see inside the Fort. It's spread over around three square kilometers (so it's useful to have your own transport) and contains a number of historic monuments, Hindu and Jain temples, and palaces (one of which, the Gujari Mahal, has been converted into an...MORE Archeological Museum).

    The Fort's most dramatic entrance, known as Hathi Pol (Elephant Gate), is on the eastern side and leads into Man Mandir palace. However, it's only accessible on foot and requires a steep climb through a series of other gates. The western gate, Urvai Gate, is conveniently reachable by vehicle, although it's nowhere near as impressive. There are some intricate Jain sculptures cut into the rock on the way up though, which shouldn't be missed.

    A sound and light show is held nightly in the Fort's open air amphitheater.

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    Chittorgarh Fort and Padmini Palace, Rajasthan

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    Chittorgarh Fort is regarded as the greatest fort in Rajasthan and is also reportedly the largest one in India. It's located in the southern part of Rajasthan, around half way between Delhi and Mumbai, and just over 100 kilometers (two hours drive) from Udaipur.

    The Fort lastly belonged to the Mewar rulers, whose capital was located there until Mughal Emperor Akbar captured the Fort in 1568. Following this, Marahana Udai Singh II moved the capital to what is now the city of Udaipur. The eldest son of Emperor Akbar, Jehangir, ended up giving the Fort back to the Mewars in 1616. However, they never resettled there.

    Due to its size, the Fort is most comfortably explored by vehicle and it's a good idea to allow at least three hours to do so. Some parts of it are in ruin but its former glory is still very much present. Attractions include old palaces, temples, towers, and a reservoir where it's possible to feed fish. Dramatic views across the Fort and town are offered at the top...MORE of Vijay Stambha (Tower of Victory).

    Perhaps the most shocking part of the Fort is the area used as a royal cremation ground, which is also where tens of thousands of Rajput women immolated themselves, choosing death before dishonor, on the three occasions that the fort was taken by rival armies between 15th and 16th centuries.

    To really understand the Fort's history, attend the evening sound and light show. However, the English version is only shown on Tuesdays and Fridays (it coincides with when the luxury tourist trains stop there).

    Chittorgarh Fort can be visited on a day trip or side trip from Udaipur along with Kumbhalgarh, another important fort of the Mewar Dynasty.

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    Kumbalgarh Fort, Rajasthan

    Inside Kumbhalgarh Fort. Sharell Cook.

    Often referred to as "The Great Wall of India", the imposing wall of Kumbhalgarh Fort extends for more than 35 kilometers and is believed to be the second longest wall in the world (the Great Wall of China is the first).

    Kumbhalgarh Fort was the most important fort of the Mewar kingdom after Chittorgarh. The rulers used to retreat to Kumbhalgarh during times of danger as it was almost impenetrable. The fort was built by Mewar ruler Rana Kumbha during the 15th century. Apparently, it took him 15 years and numerous attempts to complete it! There are about 360 ancient temples, as well as palace ruins, step wells, and cannon bunkers inside it.

    Kumbhalgarh is also famous for the fact that Maharana Pratap (grandson of Rana Kumbha) was born there, in 1540, in the mansion known as Jhalia ka Malia (Palace of Queen Jhali). He succeeded his father Udai Singh II (the founder of Udaipur) as the ruler of Mewar. Unlike many surrounding rulers, he refused to concede to the Mughals despite...MORE Akbar's negotiations. This resulted in the famous battle of Haldi Ghati in 1576, which played an important role in India's history.

    The fort is located just over two hours drive north of Udaipur, in Rajasthan's Rajsamand district. It's popularly visited on a day trip or side trip from Udaipur. It's possible to hire a car there from one of the numerous travel agencies. Many people combine visiting Kumbhalgarh with Haldi Ghati or the Jain temples at Ranakpur.

    • Where to Stay: For a regal experience, stay at The Aodhi resort, an atmospheric royal retreat owned by the Mewar family.
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    Agra Fort, Uttar Pradesh

    Agra Fort.
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    Agra Fort, while undoubtedly overshadowed by the Taj Mahal, is one of the finest Mughal forts in India. It was originally a brick fort that was held by a clan of Rajputs. However, it was subsequently captured by the Mughals and rebuilt by Emperor Akbar, who decided to shift his capital there in 1558. The red sandstone construction was completed in 1573.

    Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan, transformed the Fort into a palace during his subsequent rein. He was later imprisoned there, after his son seized power in 1658. The Fort was also the site of a battle during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which threatened the rule of the British East India Company.

    A masterpiece of Emperor Akbar's time, the Fort's Delhi Gate, is particularly grand and has been embellished with inlay work in white marble. Unfortunately, due to the Indian military's ongoing use of the northern part of the Fort, it isn't open to the public though. Instead, tourists must enter via Amar Singh Gate, to the...MORE south.

    There are many buildings to see inside the Fort, including mosques, public and private audience halls, palaces, towers, and courtyards. Another attraction is the evening sound and light show that recreates the Fort's history.

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    Red Fort, Delhi

    Andrea Pistolesi/Getty Images

    One of Delhi's top attractions and most famous monument, the Red Fort stands as a powerful reminder of the Mughal emperors who ruled India. Its walls, which stretch for over two kilometers (1.2 miles), were built in 1638 to keep out invaders. However, they failed to stop the fort being captured by the Sikhs and the British.

    The Fort's Old Delhi location, opposite Chandni Chowk, is fascinating as well as close to Jama Masjid -- another marvelous treasure of the Old City and the largest mosque in India.

    The Fort is open daily except Mondays, and a sound and light show is held there in the evenings. (Viator offers a book online Red Fort Sound and Light Show with Dinner tour).

    The area around the Red Fort really comes alive during the Navaratri festival and Dussehra, with fairs and Ram Lila performances.

    Where to Stay

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    Golconda Fort, Hyderabad

    Golkonda Fort, Hyderabad
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    Located just over 10 kilometers from Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, the Golconda Fort ruins are a popular day trip from the city. The Fort's origins, as a mud fort, have been traced back to the 13th century when it was founded by the Kakatiya Kings of Waranga. However, its heyday was during the reign of the Qutub Shahi dynasty, from 1518 to 1687.

    Later, during the 17th century, Golconda Fort rose to prominence for its diamond market. Some of the world's most priceless diamonds were found in the area.

    The Fort's ruins consist of numerous gateways, drawbridges, temples, mosques, royal apartments and halls, and stables. Some of its bastions are still mounted with canons. What's most interesting about the Fort though, is its architecture and special acoustic design. If you stand at a certain point under the dome at Fateh Darwaza (Victory Gate) and clap, it can be clearly heard more than a kilometer away at Bala Hissar Gate, the Fort's main entrance. Apparently,...MORE this was used to warn the royal occupants of attack.

    An evening sound and lights show narrates the story of the Fort.